Changing course

December 6, 2020

US president-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet picks signal major policy shifts

The transition from President Donald Trump to Joe Biden brings both hope and fear among Pakistanis given the latter’s views on Muslims, human rights, equality and democracy expressed during his campaign and his picks for several top positions for his cabinet so far.

Some are of the view that Pakistan’s narrative on Kashmir would be strengthened while others say that Pakistan could face pressure over the issue of freedom of expression and democratic institutions. Pakistan will also find it difficult to balance its ties with the US and China amid growing friction between the two superpowers, some Pakistani Americans say. Given several statements by Prime Minister Imran Khan that linked future of Pakistan’s economy with Chinese cooperation particularly in current economic crisis, the future stability of these relations would be one of the other factors to set the tone for the US policy toward Pakistan, Bilal Mustafa, a New York based Pakistani says.

As US-Pakistan relations deteriorated over allegations of sponsoring terrorism and nuclear proliferation during the last two decades and suspension of military aid during the Trump tenure, Pakistan’s defence and economic relations with China have grown. The US has meanwhile signed several defence deals with India. China has become Pakistan’s strategic ally and its main supplier of defence equipment. In return, Pakistan not only openly supports China’s stance on Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan but also never criticizes it for its treatment of Uighurs. During the last few years, Pakistan-China relations have strengthened further because of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor involves more than $60 billion in Chinese investment. While these projects brought Pakistan and China closer to each other, they also invited the Trump administration’s criticism. In November 2019, US Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs Alice Wells called the BRT and the CPEC “debt traps.” Were these projects creating jobs for Pakistanis or importing Chinese workers, she asked.

How far will the US narrative change under Biden is unclear but one must keep in mind that the new US administration would keep the US interests ahead of other considerations, says Tipu Salman Makhdoom, a Lahore-based advocate and expert on international affairs. Calling the nomination of John Kerry very favourable for Pakistan, Makhdoom says he has a track record of long-standing ties to the country. During Obama’s first term in office, Kerry sometimes served as an unofficial envoy to Pakistan’s leaders, many of whom were often at odds with the Obama administration. He also teamed up with former Senator Richard Lugar on a bill that set out a long-term economic and civilian aid package to Pakistan, Makhdoom recalls.

Some analysts are of the view that Biden has a better understanding of the Kashmir issue, a lingering territorial dispute between Pakistan and India. Their hope for this US understanding of the issue stems from a policy paper on Biden’s agenda for the Muslim American community as part of his election campaign. Biden has taken India to task over its controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act in the past and has urged New Delhi to take steps to restore the rights of Kashmiris after a clampdown on the territory. Such measures, the president-elect has asserted, are “inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy.” He has also raised a voice for the rights of Uighurs and Rohingiyas.

Some analysts are of the view that Biden has a better understanding of the Kashmir issue, a lingering territorial dispute between Pakistan and India. Their hope for this US understanding of the issue stems from a policy paper on Biden’s agenda.

In an interview, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy has said he doesn’t foresee any major changes in US policy towards Pakistan under Biden. “The ascendancy of the Democrats means that excesses committed against Kashmiris will get attention in Washington. This will irritate the Modi government and its relations with the US will likely not be as close as with Trump,” he says. The ground realities in Kashmir would not likely change but the clampdown could ease under US pressure. Hoodbhoy does not see any chance of Pakistan exiting the Chinese orbit. “Unlike after 1979, Pakistan has nothing it can sell to the US apart from a peaceful resolution to the Afghanistan conflict. Although the US would prefer a peaceful Afghanistan, it will not be willing to put billions of dollars into a losing game,” he said.

“The opposition-led Pakistan Democratic Movement will be on the front lines during at least the early phase of Biden’s tenure which could invite US pressure for democratic supremacy,” says Advocate Rabiyya Bajwa, adding that she does not see a direct involvement of the US in Pakistan’s politics. She says on matters of democracy, dictatorship and freedom of expression, US role in Pakistan will be marginal but greater than what it was during Trump’s tenure. Pakistan can expect sharp rebukes from the US and Europe if the military with a democratic façade continues with ongoing curbs on freedom of expression, she says.

So far, Biden has tried to portray himself as different from Trump while nominating people to his cabinet by picking people from diverse backgrounds. Biden had earlier promised to select people who reflect the diversity of the American population. His picks will have to be confirmed by the Senate. Already, some of his selections promise to make history.

Biden has nominated Neera Tanden for the post of the director of the Office of Management and Budget. If confirmed, Tanden, 50, a South Asian American, would be the first woman of colour to lead the OMB, the agency that oversees the federal budget. Her mother was born in India and immigrated to the US. Tanden is president of the liberal Center for American Progress research group and has previously worked in both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

He has picked Janet Yellen for the post of the secretary of the treasury. If confirmed, she would be the first woman to head the Treasury Department. Yellen, 74, was the chair of the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018.

Biden has already nominated Wally Adeyemo to serve as deputy treasury secretary, the first African American in the role. He’s also nominated Cecilia Rouse, a labour economist, to chair the Council of Economic Advisers. She would be the first black woman to lead the White House economic office.

Other picks include John Kerry as special envoy for climate, Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of homeland security, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the US ambassador to the United Nations, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence and Jake Sullivan as national security adviser.

The writer is a senior journalist currently based in Canada. He can be reached at and @RanaTanver

Changing course: US president-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet picks signal major policy shifts